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Samuel McLaughlin, shown at his desk in 1954
Samuel McLaughlin. Photo courtesy of the Oshawa Public Library

A Driving Force

The R. Samuel McLaughlin Centre will fuel genetic solutions for the prevention and treatment of disease

Seven years ago, Janet Rossant, a professor of molecular and medical genetics and microbiology, reported that she and her colleagues had successfully grown mice from individual mouse embryo cells. She and her group were among the first to clone cells from the early embryos of mice, keep them in culture indefinitely and create mice. While ordinary mortals scarcely noticed, the nose of the scientific world quickly picked up the scent, and it hasn’t stopped twitching since.

The reason? Rossant and her team could now grow genetically altered mice. Since mouse cells are almost genetically identical to human cells, the implications for the international Human Genome Project, which studies the human genome (the genetic instructions that make all beings who and what they are), were enormous.

Rossant, also co-head of the program in development and fetal health at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, is one of many U of T scientists whose work will benefit from the $50-million infusion from the R. Samuel McLaughlin Foundation, announced last June. The timing – determined by McLaughlin’s instructions 50 years ago to dismantle his foundation in 2001 – could hardly have been more fortuitous. Just weeks later, scientists announced the near completion of the sequencing of the human genome.

The money will help create the R. Samuel McLaughlin Centre at the University of Toronto, a virtual medical centre that will be based in various locations within the university’s health-sciences complex. The centre will also encompass the research institutes of U of Ts affiliated teaching hospitals (Mount Sinai Hospital, The Hospital for Sick Children, Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre, and the University Health Network).

The donation from the foundation was matched not only by $50 million from the Ontario government, through the Ontario Innovation Trust, but also by the University of Toronto and four of its research hospitals, bringing the total to $150 million. The aims of the centre are manifold: About 100 McLaughlin trainees, visitors, scientists and associates will work to advance genetics and biomolecular biology and translate them into new strategies for diagnosing, treating and preventing diseases.

As one of the beneficiaries of the new plan, Rossant continues to generate mouse models of complex human diseases. Once a disease gene is copied, mice can be developed with the same mutation. And that will aid greatly in the search for a treatment for such diseases as diabetes. “We need to be able to work in innovative ways to understand the function of genes, not only in normal development but also in terms of what goes wrong,” she explains. “U of T is already a world leader in the area of functional genomics, but the money will allow us to stay at the forefront and lure scientists who have left the country back to U of T.”

There is still a long way to go before the general population reaps the potential benefits of the centre, which will concentrate on collaborative research involving the following:

  • gene therapies for disorders such as cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and Alzheimer’s disease that are caused by single-gene defects
  • transgenic animal models to study multiple-gene defects, which could lead to a better understanding of many of the most common diseases in the aging population, including diabetes, cancer, hypertension and atherosclerosis
  • the influence of environmental factors on genetic predisposition to certain diseases
  • targeting specific parts of complex protein structures that could lead to custom-designed drugs for individual patients
  • biomaterials and tissue engineering for such tissue replacement as skin, blood vessels and corneas.

Equally important is the impact the centre will have on future generations of medical students. Fifteen McLaughlin scientists will help develop curricula based on molecular medicine and act as supervisors and mentors to students in the Faculty of Medicines MD/ PhD program.

When “Colonel Sam” went fishing he landed some big ideas.

We can thank fly-fishing for the R. Samuel McLaughlin Centre. Salmon fishing, it seems, was Samuel McLaughlin’s favourite sport, and without it the University of Toronto’s new virtual facility for biomedical and genetic research might never have come to pass.

The idea for the R. Samuel McLaughlin Foundation, which McLaughlin started in 1951 at the age of 80, was born at a fishing camp at Cap-Chat in Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula. McLaughlin was a friend of William E. Gallie, former surgeon-in-chief at the Toronto General Hospital. In all likelihood, John Fraser, a broker who looked after the financial concerns of both men, had introduced them. Upon his retirement in 1947, Gallie took up fly-fishing, and soon Fraser, Gallie and Dr. John Oille, former senior cardiologist at the Toronto General Hospital, became regular guests of McLaughlin at the fishing camp.

It was undoubtedly during these trips that Gallie, who had created the university’s first systematic course of training in surgery in 1931, inspired McLaughlin to establish the foundation. McLaughlin committed $1 million to help finance the postgraduate studies of medical students and subsequently set up a visiting professorship and a scholarship in honour of his fishing friends Gallie and Oille.

The foundation’s first major project was the McLaughlin Travelling Fellowships, which enabled senior graduate medical students to study abroad for a year. Every fall until his death in 1972, McLaughlin would host a dinner party at Parkwood, his estate in Oshawa, Ont., for the McLaughlin fellows who had just returned from their studies. After dinner there was often a tour of a small museum where “Colonel Sam” kept some of the original sleighs and carriages made by his father’s company, the McLaughlin Carriage Works (the predecessor of the McLaughlin Motor Car Co., incorporated in 1907, which became General Motors of Canada).

Renowned pediatric plastic surgeon Dr. William Lindsay, one of the first McLaughlin fellows, attended the first two dinners in 1953 and 1954. “There would be 14 or 16 men sitting at a long, rectangular table,” recalls Lindsay. “Mr. McLaughlin would be sitting at the middle of one side. He wasn’t very tall but he would command and direct conversation throughout dinner magnificently.” In order to do this, however, he would have to rise to his feet when he had something to say.

But the philanthropist and auto-industry pioneer was a big man in all the ways that count. By the time his foundation is dissolved in August 2001, it will have donated nearly $200 million to individuals, institutions and charities – and it will have helped to pave the way to the future for Canadian medical students.

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